The debate about whether the United States should provide lethal weapons to Ukraine has been rolling for some time. The idea was considered and rejected by the Obama Administration, despite there being Congressional approval for the move. Ambassador Kurt Volker, the new US Special Envoy to Ukraine backs the idea of sending weapons to Ukraine, and the Pentagon has recently sent for White House approval a detailed request for a $50 million value package of weapons.
The response from Russia is unchanged. Russia continues to insist that arming the Ukrainian military is likely to cause there to be an escalation in the war. Of course, we should all know by now that nothing said by Russia can be taken at face value, especially with regard to Ukraine, but casual observers are joining the debate and asking questions like “why should we arm Ukraine?”
Before continuing with the answer to that question and an explanation of the intended military aid package, one further piece of historical background… This is a question of such importance to Russia that it was the only change of substance made (via the skills of Paul Manafort) by them to the GOP platform at the Republican National Committee.
“Why arm Ukraine?”
There are many reasonable responses to this question: One is that the US certainly has a responsibility to Ukraine as a result of the Budapest Memorandum. However, a simpler explanation is that it would be in the spirit of American values, as tweeted concisely by American Naval College Professor and writer Tom Nichols: “we should oppose invasions in the middle of Europe launched by revanchist neo-Soviet mafia states.”
In a nutshell, Ukraine is the victim of Russian military aggression, and countries wanting to be on the right side of history should stand with Ukraine, as the consequences of this war are of significant geopolitical importance.
What’s in the package?
One of the main elements of the Pentagon’s proposed package of military assistance is the Javelin anti-tank missile system. This weapon will change the battlefield calculations considerably. While Ukraine does produce some very fine weapons of their own, and has remarkably produced a very competent army over the course of the last three-and-a-half years, the Javelin moves Ukraine’s defensive capabilities to another league.
The Javelin missile system can lock on to a target from a range of almost three miles. Once the Javelin operator hits his mark with an infrared beam, the missile is pretty much guaranteed to destroy its prey – and the Javelin preys on tanks first and foremost.
In order to understand why this changes the course of this war, we need to examine two famous battles in Ukraine; the capture by Russian forces, acting on orders from the Russian government, of the Ukrainian cities of Ilovaisk and Debaltseve, where Russian tank units, combined with intense artillery, were decisive in both outcomes.
The Battle of Ilovaisk
By the summer of 2014 Ukrainian forces were on the offensive, successfully retaking towns and cities that had been outside of government control for several months. At one point it was actually likely that Ukraine would achieve a full military victory – the forces occupying Ukrainian land were losing towns and cities on a daily basis and the city of Donetsk itself was almost encircled.
The city of Ilovaisk is located to the east of the city of Donetsk, almost half way between Donetsk and the Russian border, itself this is testament to how far the Ukrainian military had managed to advance. The battle for Ilovaisk started on Aug. 7, 2014. By Aug. 18, the Ukrainian military claimed to have taken control of the city. But by Aug. 24, Ukrainian Independence Day, the situation in Ilovaisk was changing because of a significant inflow of regular Russian military units, including the Russian 6th Tank Brigade, as well as the 8th, 18th, and 21st Motor Rifle Brigades.
The days following Aug. 24 were like a living hell in Ilovaisk, with the city under constant and massive bombardment. But worse was to come.
After holding out in the face of days of shelling, the Ukrainian side made the decision to surrender Ilovaisk, and negotiated a retreat. The terms of the agreement were that the Ukrainians should leave behind their armored personnel carriers and ammunition, and in return they were to be given a safe route out of the city. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself called this a “humanitarian corridor for besieged Ukrainian soldiers.” In reality, an ambush and massacre awaited those men as they travelled down the agreed six mile route.
As a result of this savage and callous attack, hundreds of men who were retreating under a white flag were killed.
The Battle of Debaltseve
The battle for the city of Debaltseve has more than one reason for being central to understanding the nature of the war in Ukraine, because this battle was taking place as the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia were meeting in Minsk in a second attempt to reach a peace agreement for Ukraine. As with any peace deal, Minsk II starts with the first obvious necessity, to cease firing.
At the insistence of Putin, the start of the Minsk II cease-fire would be delayed by 72 hours, time enough, his military advisors assumed, to take hold of Debaltseve, which is a key city sitting right in the middle of Luhansk and Donetsk cities, and an important road and rail junction. When Debaltseve had not been taken by the stipulated start of the Minsk II cease-fire, Russia continued fighting, simply ignoring the provisions of a peace deal Putin had signed just days earlier.
In this battle too, Russian army tanks were one of the keys to victory. Debaltseve fell on Feb. 18, 2015, one week after Minsk II was signed, and four days after the cease-fire should have started. More than 500 innocent citizens from the city were killed.
Something very important is missing from all of this, and that is a record of any demands, small or large, from the citizens of Debaltseve or Ilovaisk to be part of the so-called “separatist” enclaves of eastern Ukraine.
Fighting rages in Ukraine on a daily basis, people die every single day in this very real war. This morning (Aug. 7) there were reports of 120 mm weapons (banned by Minsk) being used on the outskirts of Mariupol. Also absent is any record any significant number of people in Mariupol wanting to leave Ukraine, as we have learned from looking at cities like Slovyansk, this war is simply not the will of the people, it is not fought with any local agency.
While Russia projects the idea of a better armed Ukraine being some kind of “escalation” of events, in reality the examples of Ilovaisk and Debaltseve show that it is actually Russia that is responsible for escalations. The counter argument to arming Ukraine is that it would lead to an increase in hostilities, this idea has simply not stood the test of time, because while Ukraine has not been armed with U.S. weapons, the Kremlin increased its hostility towards Ukraine anyway.
The reason the Pentagon’s request for Javelin missiles makes sense is because it will blunt Russia’s ability to carry out large scale offensive operations designed to capture more population centres. The residents of Mariupol and Avdiyivka (where fighting also rages every day) will be safer in the knowledge that they will not suffer the same fate as their compatriots in Debaltseve and Ilovaisk.
The key to ending the war in eastern Ukraine has always been to increase the costs to Russia for their actions. There are many ways to do this, and providing Ukraine with fearsome tank destroying capabilities is an excellent way to start.